Alliance (and violence)

A confused rooster crows at 11:45pm. Until now, there’s only been one chopper fly-over. A quiet night, until now.

My social day had ended relatively “late” with a beer wrapping up slightly before the witching hour, my Lost Anthropologist friend making his way back past “Jardim” camp on foot, said he had to get moving around 6pm to avoid walking past there at dark.

Today I walked by the government palace building around noon. Before lunchtime. The place was empty. I had never seen it like this. There were a couple of cracked windows where protestors had thrown rocks. The site of a burned out car was marked by a square black halo in the parking lot. There were virtually no security guards anywhere, the doors of the palace open and empty. Even access to the UN annexes behind the palace seemed unguarded. Part of me wanted to follow the lone international advisor in and check out the lack of activity there.

I counted the cars in the parking lot that were not UN. It was shocking. Maybe 5-10.

Is the government actually working? It seems like they have simply thrown in the towel.

There were twee colorful banners along the balconies of the palace reading “Timor Ida Deit” (There is only one Timor) and other slogans of unity. As I continued towards Kolmera, past Toko Lay, I saw other posters promoting unity by Timorese artists. Some with crocodiles, people in their adat clothes holding hands. I realized that I am an extremely cynical person in relation to posters, reconciliation and the international community. I wondered who was naïve enough to foot the bill for these latest ones.

I stopped by the Ministry of Education, and was happy to see a fair bit of activity. It seemed the vast majority of civil servants were there. I think reopening schools has been made a major (and realistic) priority by Ramos Horta.

I then walked down to the Comoro road. Passing the Dili District Tribunal, I was even more struck by the dead aspect of the place, which by all rights should be the busiest of all government institutions! There were three people sitting on a bench in the foyer having what seemed to be a personal conversation. They could have been sitting on the beach, or on a bench waiting for a bus. The security guard made an effort to get up and check me out, giving up without a word, realizing I was just some crazy useless malai. I asked, “Are there any hearings today?” The answer “No”. I asked “Is anybody working here?” He said, “Yeah.” Judging by the three motorbikes and 6-8 cars (many of which looked “international”), not much work could be going on. But then again the work load got lighter when 57 people escaped in broad daylight from Becora prison at the end of last month.

Word is Alkatiri will have his day in court in early October.

My Lost Anthropologist friend was staying at the “Backpackers Hostel” which costs $8/night for a bunk. It’s one of the cheapest places to stay in Dili, it’s only competition the long-standing Dili Guesthouse near the Old Market, which is too close for comfort to the neighborhood of Quintal Ki’ik. The Backpackers was a bit grotty for my taste, but has a nice collection of DVDs, a decent kitchen and patio/eating area. Had another nice “café timor” and share gripes about our projects and the lack of useful bibliography on Timor.

His area is where two (sometimes three) languages meet and coexist, in his case Bunak, Mambai and sometimes Tetun. He is attempting to model marriage and inheritance systems in this context, which must be a fascinating, and well, extremely difficult task. He was explaining (and I forced him to explain the anthro terms I had never been forced to learn) that certain models for marriage and inheritance are more rigid, and hence dominate in a certain situation, and others are more plastic. That is how groups can so effectively co-exist here.

He also said something which I found fascinating, and was not aware of. That Bunak and Mambai are of course from “opposite” language groups (Papuan and Melanesian, in that order) and yet, in areas where they coexist, they seem to share a hybrid ritual language, which is unintelligible to most on both sides.

This is what anthropologist with their obsessions with separating, classifying and rule-writing have glossed over here for so long: the incredible power of social creativity of humans. Thank god we are finally allowed to study what for so long was considered the vexing “exception to the rule.” If we look more closely, in a place like Timor, with incredible patterns of marriage alliance across regions, linguistic complexity spilled across the challenging topography of the place, what old school anthropology defined as exceptions are in fact the RULE, and the glue which has kept this place as peaceful as it has been. 

The “West” sees peoples like the Timorese as war-mongering hot-heads. Is it because they headhunted, they seemed to have created a ritual scheme for conflict, which we interpret as a relish for blood and revenge?

Look at the twentieth century in Timor. How many bloody episodes can we count in Timor? Only a couple snafus related to taxation, and the autocratic rule of Governor Celestino da Silva before the big rebellion of 1911-12. Then the cataclysm of World War II, a violence from outside which triggered waves of violence from inside. Then 1959, also an “exterior” event which gained a life of its own. And then 1975. Given how complex this place is, the recurrent hungry season and periodic famine, I think that’s really not a bad record. Look at the “West” in the same time period. Let’s not kid ourselves, our lovely national system of the twentieth century has a worse track record than the Timorese systems of alliance and ritual-linguistic co-existence.

I suppose either way, looking at the question of alliance and violence, one can be accused of (gasp) orientalism. I’m just saying we should challenge ourselves to view the complexity of human relations here, and not necessarily buy either sanitized view that the Timorese are a proud, peace-loving people victimized by colonialism and occupation, or the view that without outside interference, they are doomed to keep killing each other in an endless cycle of violence.


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